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Freshmen stepping up for injury-ridden Irish

| Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Throughout his tenure, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has stressed the phrase “next man in” to refer to the seamless transition that he believes should occur when a player goes down due to injury, suspension or demotion.

This year, the “next man in” at several key positions include several unfamiliar faces, members of a 23-member freshman class representing 14 different states.

The No. 9 Irish have played 11 freshmen thus far, and eight of them have made appearances for a defense that currently allows slightly more than 10 points per game.

“Everybody in every position, if you’re like a two- or possible three-deep kind of guy, you need to pay attention to the person in front of you with all the injuries taking place and just learn from their mistakes and try to do what you have to do in the games and practices,” freshman linebacker Kolin Hill said.

Irish freshman defensive lineman Grant Blankenship runs towards the scrum during Notre Dame’s 31-0 win over Michigan on Sept. 6.Emmet Farnan| The Observer
Irish freshman defensive lineman Grant Blankenship runs towards the scrum during Notre Dame’s 31-0 win over Michigan on Sept. 6.
As Hill mentioned, injuries have taken their toll on the Notre Dame roster through three games thus far. Graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth, senior linebacker Jarrett Grace, junior safety Nicky Baratti and sophomore cornerback Cole Luke have all missed time on the defensive side of the ball with injuries, while sophomore safety Max Redfield had to sit out most of the win over Purdue after he was ejected for targeting. Additionally, four players on defense, including senior defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, have been withheld from competition since mid-August due to an ongoing academic investigation.

With so many contributors out, enter players like freshman defensive lineman Daniel Cage.

“I was excited, just to know that I was going to play — that’s what I was fighting for,” Cage said. “I didn’t want to redshirt — I wanted to come in and make an immediate impact with what was going on with this team.”

Cage has seen snaps at the unit perhaps most impacted by freshmen — defensive line. Due to the loss of former linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix in the offseason, the Irish have had to bolster their depth by inserting freshman such as Cage, Grant Blankenship, Andrew Trumbetti and even Hill, who has seen time at defensive end.

Irish freshman safety Drue Tranquill celebrates a tackle during Notre Dame’s win against Purdue on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.Emily McConville| The Observer
Irish freshman safety Drue Tranquill celebrates a tackle during Notre Dame’s win against Purdue on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Coming here, you have to have a role, and I’m accepting my role,” Hill said. “I’m a third-down kind of guy — they utilize me in pass rushing and situations like that. It is what it is, and I like being in that role.”

Hill has seemingly thrived in his role so far, as he’s recorded five tackles and two sacks in two games.

“During practice, I was practicing at a good level,” he said. “When we did one-on-one pass rushing, [defensive line] coach [Mike] Elston sparked some good things out of me, so I knew I could make an impact on the team in some way, and that’s definitely [in] pass rushing.”

Further down the line, Trumbetti has added five tackles, despite missing last weekend’s game after a head injury suffered during a hard hit against Michigan on Sept. 6, and Blankenship and Cage have recorded three tackles each.

“Right now, I’m picking things up pretty quickly, since I’ve got my teammates here to help me out,” Cage said. “[Junior defensive lineman] Sheldon Day, he’s been a real help, helping me with the plays, my stance, how to get off the ball.”

Notre Dame’s freshmen contributions have extended beyond the line into the linebacker and secondary units, where first-year linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, cornerback Nick Watkins and safety Drue Tranquill have seen time.

Tranquill has split time at safety and linebacker and currently leads the freshmen with nine tackles.

“I’m just a guy that can move around,” Tranquill said. “I have a little bigger body, so I’m able to come down and play that rush kind of [linebacker]. I can also drop into coverage, too, so that’s kind of where they see my skills at.”

Tranquill, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, native, had originally committed to Purdue, Notre Dame’s most recent opponent, but he flipped to Notre Dame in November of last year.

“It was a little later in the process, obviously,” Tranquill said. “That’s the first reason I committed to Purdue — I didn’t think that Notre Dame would offer. … But Coach Kelly came on late there, and he really did, he made me feel wanted, which was a big thing for me.”

The stories of several other freshmen on this year’s squad are not too dissimilar from Tranquill. Hill, who received little national attention until late in the recruiting process, committed to the Irish last December.

“I didn’t have a lot of offers at all,” he said. “I was underweight and just now that I’m here, it’s a blessing being here, and I’m really glad to be part of this team.”

And Cage made a literal last-minute decision, choosing the Irish on National Signing Day in February.

“When I first came out that tunnel and [saw] 80,000 people looking at you, cheering you on, just having your back and going out on the field and going out against the opponent, there’s no better feeling,” he said.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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